‘The 10AM’ dir. Colin O’Toole

A father and son attempt to bond over the family business.

Writer-Director-Producer: Colin O’Toole
Co-Producer: Pete Gibbons
DOP: Jonas Mortensen
Editor: James Rosen
Key Cast: Martin Serene, Frankie Wilson

C8: Where did the idea for ‘The 10AM’ come from and how long did it take you to write it?

CO: This might sound strange but I was researching a documentary I wanted to direct about Indian hangmen. The Indian authorities had advertised for the role of hangman for a series of executions to take place of ultra high profile prisoners on death row including Amjal Kasab (a Pakistani militant and a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Islamist group, through which he took part in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks)

The last hangman Nuta Mullick had died an old man eight years earlier but not before becoming a local celebrity and a household name. Mullick inaugurated blood donation camps, functions and even acted in a rural theatre as the ‘hangman’. Mr. Mullick even demonstrated how to tie a ‘good noose’ on national television. This to me was surreal but compelling. Eight years later when the post was made public there were two hopefuls eager to land the coveted role, both of whom had a proud family history of hangmen in the family tree and now they were ready to carry forth that baton.

I wanted to follow their story but the film didn’t happen for various reasons. A year later I had two electricians (a father and son) carry out some work at my place and it suddenly struck me to combine the two worlds together and come up with a fiction idea that was obviously unreal but at the same time very normal and recognizable. I also had various Ealing films in the back of my mind when writing it, a bizarre mix of influences in the end.

C8: Did you always intend for it to be a dark comedy or did the comedic films present themselves in later iterations of the script?

CO: I thought I’d jump straight into the deep end and attempt something I had never done before so right from the outset I knew I wanted it to feel comedic and they do say comedy is the hardest thing to get right, it is either funny or not. ‘The 10AM’ is not trying to be an outright comedy though.

I also wanted to see if I could write dialog so there is a lot of dialog but if you get the right actors they can make that work for you and of course a good editor. For me the best shorts are about character and story, aesthetic is third on the list of concerns that’s why the camera work is quite simple, relatively static and composed throughout, no gimmicks. I rate Alexander Payne and especially ‘Nebraska’ and how he reduced his shot choice in that film to the point of perfection. Saying that I do think Jonas Mortensen made ‘THE 10AM’ look great on the restrictions I created.

C8: How did you assemble the cast? What were you looking for in your actors?

CO: John Waters used to ask two questions to actors in his casting sessions One: Do you smoke? and two: have you ever been arrested? If you answered yes both times then you were hired. My casting was a bit more straight-forward.

I only had a casting session for Junior (Frankie Wilson) the rest of the cast were friends, or friends of friends that kind of thing. Wendy Nottingham (Mr’s Jones) was in one of my all time favorite shorts directed by Mike Leigh from 1988 called ‘The Short and Curlies’ and my friend Sam Spruell knew her. Dad (Martin Serene) had been working with another friend of mine and I got to know him that way. Martin was in ‘Seven’ and he played a character called Buffalo Bill, he also worked with Plan B on various projects such as ‘Ill Manors’. Martin then recommended Huggy Lever (‘Lock Stock’, ‘Somers Town’) the guy who get’s it. It kind of worked out like that.

What I look to in all actors is a sense of emotional and creative intelligence and if they ‘get’ what it is your trying to do. You can immediately clock those details five minutes into a casting or meeting. The less you (as a director) need to communicate to an actor on set the better. You’re not a puppet master. Of course there are always minor adjustments you tweak in any performance but if the actor is lost and you have explained things as much as you can, then there is not much hope in ever getting it right.

C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?

CO: We shot the film on a C300 because that is pretty much all I could afford to use. I paid for the film on my credit card so we made do and actually it’s not a bad camera. Like any director I initially wanted to shoot on a glamour format so I thought lets do it on 35mm, then I priced up 16mm, then Alexa but the C300 was what I had to use. MPC (Moving Picture Company) were providing the online for free and in the end I didn’t want to burden them with any headache by clogging up their system with unnecessary large files. It holds up fine on a cinema screen so all is good. Again what really matters is story and character.

C8: What advice would you give to filmmakers who are attempting to write, direct and produce their own shorts?

CO: My dad worked as a steel fixer all his life and my mother worked night’s as a Nurse in a Manchester hospital, so writing, directing and producing a short film is easy in comparison. My advice though is to make sure your script is the best it can be before shooting it. Email it to a bunch of people you trust for honest feedback and be prepared to take comments on board - edit and trim constantly. Cast the best actors and attach the best crew you can find, be organized and work hard. I love working with DOP Jonas Mortensen because he always has a creative insight into the story and not just how to shoot it and that’s less common than you think.

C8: What had you done up in your career to this point and what have you done since?

CO: I’ve been making work for 15 years. I started in Manchester for a record label called Grandcentral and directed a music video and C4 short doc for an artist called Aim – loads of fun.  Since then I’ve shot documentary, commercials, drama and music videos more recently I teach film and acting which I enjoy a lot.

Highlights have been directing for artists such as Ian Brown, Deadmau5 (MVA Innovation nomination), Tricky, Blackstrobe and The White Lies music wise. I’ve shot documentary shorts for the 3 Minute Wonder Strand that were nominated for a Grierson documentary awards. I have worked briefly in house at Channel 4 and shot for the current affairs show ‘Dispatches’ and have worked for 4 Creative. I have shot a feature documentary about the music industry called ‘Lets Us Be Golden’ that featured Fatima from Eglo Records and as she was known then Beth Jeans Houghton (She is now called Du Blonde) and it was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I teach acting for TV and Film at a progressive place called MN Acting Academy. I have a lot of input in how I run and structure my courses but best of all it means every week with or without a camera I’m working with young actors on scripts I have written.

More recently I have signed to Curtis Brown Literary agent for TV and Film.

C8: You’re probably best known for your commercial and music video work. For you what are the major differences between those worlds and narrative filmmaking?

CO: On my showreel I have music videos for some major artists and a few commercials and whilst it can be a buzz to work in that world it is quite different to constructing a stand-alone narrative.

I’ve always tried to retain a sense of narrative in my commercial and music work because I ultimately want to make Film and TV drama. When you write and direct a short there are no restrictions, you have an absolute freedom because it’s entirely your idea there is no agenda other than getting the film right. There are also no creative directors and no commissioners from record labels standing beside the monitor so your primary focus are the characters and story and not product placement, brand message or a musician’s performance.

I think some people do find it quite difficult to make that leap into straight narrative and find it quite challenging to not have certain constructs to fall back on, sometimes you can tell a commercials director has made a short or feature film because it looks amazing but that is all you can say about it.

I think what I have gained by shooting shorts and teaching actors would feed back brilliantly into commercial directing and I think it’s made me a stronger director.

C8: What, in your opinion, makes for a good collaboration?

CO: Honesty is the best way to make a collaboration work. If you fear being honest to someone or vice versa then are you going to get the best out of a creative situation? Probably not. Oh and make sure the person your collaborating with isn’t a total dick, that always helps.

C8: What’s next for you?

CO: The future is positive. I have my debut feature in development with Creative England / BFI / Mint Pictures. Luke Bainbridge (The Observer) is currently writing the screenplay.

I’m also developing a documentary drama about Lorn Mayers, a guy who made it from a council estate in Tottenham all the way to the Oakland Raiders only then to be shot six times on a visit back home to London. He is attempting to make it to the Paralympics in Rio. (Lorn is the big guy at the end of ‘The 10am’)

I would also love to expand the world of ‘The 10AM’, maybe it could be a web series?  Who knows.